Kazi Nazrul Islam: Voice of Bengali Muslims and Secular Nationhood

Protik Bardhan | Update:

Nazrul IslamIndeed, Bengali Muslim’s quest for identity culminated in Kazi Nazrul Islam. The literary endeavour that the Muslim writers undertook during the 1920s flourished through Kazi Nazrul Islam in the sense that he was the first Muslim to proclaim that he was both a Muslim and a Bengali. The two parts of the identity do not conflict; rather they converge at a point and Nazrul was the first man who got to this point with both his heart and head. 

The tragic part of Bengali Muslim’s literary endeavour, historically contextualised, consists in the fact that it revolved around an identity crisis in the early twentieth century. They failed to resolve the dilemma, whether they are Muslims having a Middle East origin or Bengali native origin. Where do they belong? This very question simply haunted them for years. Their Hindu counterparts hardly treated them native. Also, the Hindus sided with the British to teach the Muslims a good a lesson may be in a bid to give vent to their pent up anger over loosing the territory to the Muslims some hundred years back.

This very attitude is reflected in Bankim Chandra Chatterjee's famous novel ‘Anandamath’ where he dreamt of an ideal Hindu state completely devoid of the Muslims, it is perhaps the most charged novel in the realm of Bangla literary history.  The Muslim writers did not fall short to this effect. Writers like Ismail Hossain Siraji, almost with an unfailing zeal, demonised the Hindu rulers and god & goddesses in his works. However; the Muslim rulers enjoined and patronised the arts and culture of this region, while the high level courtiers of the Muslim rulers were all Hindus. Even, land management system of the Mogul rulers was pretty much pro-peasant. They developed chains of canals across Bengal that facilitated cultivation to a great extent. In case of bad harvest, the Moghul rulers exempted the tax of the peasants. Hindus, especially, the elite class availed of the opportunity of helping the British to avenge the Muslims. It may kindly be noted that Bengal did not experience famine in the Mogul regime, but under the British; millions of people died in two great famines. Nonetheless, the Hindu elites extended their all-out assistance to the British rulers.    

Indeed, Hindus and Muslims were and are still two separate religious communities. But the widespread sectarianism leading the two separate communities into rivalry has its origin in the British ‘divide and rule’ policy. The British policy of ‘divide and rule’ in the subcontinent, as many analysts believe, derived primarily from the colonisers’ political apprehension that the Muslims would continue to remain hostile towards them because they occupied India in 1757 toppling the Muslim rulers in Bengal. The British rulers, therefore, felt it politically important for them to draw the Hindu elite towards the colonial power by distributing various favours, and deliberately cultivating prejudice among the Hindus against the Muslims, causing distance between the two religious communities of the subcontinent. It was a monumental obstacle in the formation of national unity vis-à-vis the British colonial rule. The role of Congress and Muslim League further aggravated the issue. Nazrul rightly identified it.

Nazrul broke this impasse. He voiced the concern of Hindu-Muslim unity in his poetry, very loudly indeed- a voice quite unheard of in Bangla literature.  Again, he felt that urge to make the Muslims feel at home in the realm of Bengali cultural arena. Nasiruddin, the then editor of Sawgat persuaded Nazrul to use Arabic, Persian words and to uphold the Islamic culture in his writings. Initially, Nazrul denied doing so; but Nasiruddin convinced him to comply with his request. Nasiruddin said, you wrote poem on the Hindu deities; they are good poetry indeed. But, the Muslims must see their culture reflected in literature. When our literature upholds the tradition of both the religious communities of the country, it will be truly our national literature. Nazrul agreed, but he never fell short of criticising the religious pretensions. Again, he composed Shyama Sangeet, hymn to the Hindu Goddesses Kali. He alluded to Omar Khaiyam and Hafeez in his songs to allure the Muslim community towards music-as they were averse to songs and other cultural genre. Nazrul spoke of epoch making movements and revolutions through referring to, among others, the Turkish nationalist leader Kamal Pasha, just to draw the Muslim psyche towards progressive movements, and apparently to extol the spirit of revolution in the country.

The modern poets like Buddhdeb Basu once termed Nazrul as a ‘talented boy’. Also, he criticised Nazrul of writing puthi-like poems- not metamorphosed into modern style. Indeed, Nazrul’s style bears some resemblance with the Muslim ‘puthi’ writers, nonetheless; that very style underwent transformation and polishing in his hands. He adopted the style with a purpose; it was suited to the mind set and intellectual stage of the then Muslim people. These colonial modern eyes could not feel the pulse of these ‘puthi’; their Euro-centric taste of literature did not go with that. They termed these things as ‘folk’ in the sense that they are not modern in the light of colonial modernism. Nazrul spoke in a different tone, very loudly. His realm of thought was also miles apart from his contemporaries. He profusely used Arabic and Persian words in his poetry; they intermingled with Bangla and Sanskrit words so naturally that there can hardly be any instance of artificiality in his poetry. That is why; Kazi Nazrul Islam holds a distinct place in the history of Bangla poetry- not only because of social and political significance, but also by virtue of quality of poetry.

In creativity, Nazrul perhaps far outweighs others in the annals of the Bangla literature. His language flowed like fountains, as some critics suggest. He composed songs after songs in a single sitting, while tuned them at the same time.
He translated Ghajals by Hafiz and Khaiyam into Bangla. On the one hand, it brought these great works to the Bangalee readers, while it went on enriching the language. Worth insisting, the educated Muslim readers felt at home in their literary endeavour. He had no formal education, his family and economic background was also not that good. Nonetheless, he was highly knowledgeable as we see he heavily alluded to Hindu mythological characters and heroes of Islamic history. He had great mastery over the language of Persia- the works of translations itself bespeak the fact.  

The bonding that Nazrul established between Bengali culture and Islamic tradition ultimately led to what noted intellectual Badruddin Umar termed ‘homecoming of Bengali Muslims’. It happened after the division of Bengal- which Nazrul and his like minded people  tried hard to resist, but failed. Nazrul anagrammatically used ‘Fuckistan’ for ‘Pakistan’- for which he was heavily condemned. Pakistani rulers declared Urdu as the only state language, while put forth a proposal to write Bangla in Arabic alphabet. The fascist decision resulted in language movement. Hence, the ghost of Pakistan started disappearing ultimately leading to the formation of Bengali’s own state. Bengali Muslims undertook a venture to reclaim their identity. The ghost of Pakistan taught us that the character of the new state should be non-communal, if not secular- as dreamt by Nazrul. So, Nazrul, Bengali Muslims and Bangladesh merge into a single being.

But the dream of Nazrul is far from being translated into reality; however, we ventured to undertake that journey through bloody war of independence in 1971. Indeed, history does not always take a linear path, but reverting to the abandoned ideology would not produce anything good for us. I would like to end by quoting Marx in this regard, ‘History repeats itself, and repeats itself in a distorted way’- we should be aware of it.   


* Protik Bardhan currently works for Prothom Alo editorial section.

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